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Experts propose a new way to think about structures destroyed during wildfires

The burned remains of a home destroyed by the Marshall Fire
Jack Dempsey
FILE - The burned remains of a home destroyed by the Marshall Fire are shown, Jan. 7, 2022, in Louisville, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

In recent years, a number of wildfires have resulted in major losses of homes, and sometimes many lives. Several fire experts say we may be thinking about these incidents wrong.

In a recent opinion article in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, several wildfire experts wrote that incidents like Lahaina last year or Colorado’s 2021 Marshall Fire are often thought of as “wildfires that involved houses.” A better way to think about them, they argued, is as “urban fires initiated by wildfires.” That reframing could help agencies and policies shift “from a focus on the wildlands to one centered on the structure and its immediate surroundings.”

Co-author Kimiko Barrett, with the nonprofit think tank Headwaters Economics, says climate change is only adding urgency to their call.

“We must now deliberately and fundamentally rethink how, where and under what conditions these homes are being constructed in these high risk areas,” she said. “How they're being maintained and how they're being mitigated against increasing risks.”

She said that will require action from federal agencies – like HUD, FEMA and the US Fire Administration, but also work at the state, local and even neighborhood levels through building codes and incentives for home retrofitting.

However, she said, “there is a significant lack of federal investment in the built environment and mitigation measures to reduce wildfire risk.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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